Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?
Portrait of a Killer
Corona was initially assigned a public defender, who proceeded to hire several psychiatrists to do a mental evaluation. As reporters dug around, his background was pieced together. He was a labor contractor making around $20,000 a year and considered a solid family man with four daughters. Cartel writes in Disguise of Sanity that he never missed church. There were no stories that anyone could discover of abuse done to workers, just a few complaints that he did not pay enough for work done. The ranchers who hired him to bring them workers tended to like and respect him. And while the victims were mostly white men, Corona's crews consisted of mostly workers from Mexico.
Kidder actually met him a year into the case. In his prison cell, Corona seemed sad and worn out, but humble. Knowing about the man's involuntary stint in an institution after a period of delusions about seeing ghosts, Kidder said, "I looked for signs of madness." Corona had been subjected to nearly two dozen shock treatments during an era when that treatment was believed to be efficacious in restoring the mind, and had been pronounced cured and released. A defense psychiatrist believed he was aware of what he was doing and did not suffer from a mental disorder. Yet a prosecution psychiatrist had decided that the defendant was psychotic (it's usually the other way around). When Kidder met him, he was on Thorazine to treat anxiety as he sat waiting in prison. (Frasier indicates that he had two heart attacks during the course of his trial.) Although Corona reportedly had an IQ of 130, he did not read much and spoke only broken English. To pass time, he was taking lessons in painting and hoping to apply for U.S. citizenship. Overall, he appeared to be depressed.
Cartel adds the stories from sheriff's deputy Jerry Gregory that some people had seen a darker side to Juan Corona: a terrible temper. A few with whom Gregory spoke also claimed to have seen Corona in the vicinities of the graves.
About a month after Corona's arrest, an attorney named Richard Hawk arrived in Yuba City and took over the case. He fired the psychiatrists, dismissing their findings, and instigated a hefty lawsuit against the county officials, citing improper evidence handling, violation of Corona's rights, slander, and causing emotional distress, as a warning that he meant business. He also let Kidder see the evidence, which violated the gag order imposed on all officials in the case. It wasn't impressive. The names of half a dozen men appeared on the ledger, but the prosecution's handwriting expert could not say with assurance that Corona himself had written those names. And even if he had, that would not necessarily mean he had murdered them. Alongside the names were a few dates.
As for the forensic tests, "blood evidence" turned out to be paint or animal blood, and no blood had been found on the machete. Blood in one of Corona's vehicles was explained as originating from an injured worker whom he had transported. On the only victim who wasn't too decomposed for an examination of whether the machete matched the wounds, it turned out that there was no conclusive link. The tire tracks also did not match any of Corona's vehicles, nor the bullet removed from one victim to Corona's gun. And no analysis had been done on the receipts to prove that only Corona had handled them, or to link the receipts via date to the proper rate of decomposition of the victim in whose grave they were found, i.e., to prove that the receipts had fallen or dropped into the grave on the day that person had been dumped there.
Corona had an alibi as well. During the time when many of the victims had been attacked, he had been on crutches. Hawk even considered having Corona testify on his own behalf, believing he'd make an excellent witness. Yet if Corona did not do this business, then who did? People tended to want a case like this closed cleanly. Sometimes even ambiguous evidence worked for juries because they just wanted an end to it all. Defense attorneys realize that. Hawk realized that. So did the DA.